Students grow food at school for their peers

Students in the Charlotte High School Agriscience program engage in farm to school efforts while in class.

For the past three years, the Charlotte High School Agriscience department and FFA program has been and continues growing food hydroponically for use in the school’s cafeteria. Hydroponically-grown food is grown in a controlled environment and in a nutrient-rich solution instead of soil. Without the need for soil, hydroponic food production can be accomplished indoors virtually year round, reducing the worry of weeds or soil-borne pests and insects.

The agriscience department is currently producing and selling around two pounds of salad greens per week to the lunch program. They are working to enhance their growing platform which will result in the addition of herbs and other produce being grown for the school food program. In the past, they have provided some produce to the Siren Eaton Shelter in Charlotte and hope to begin again with any surplus they may have with their improved system.

Agriscience teacher Nick Thompson shares, “Hands-on learning is the best way for students to understand any concept. The vegetable production is a vehicle to help deliver educational content and the students learn in an applied setting. It brings relevance to what they are learning about, and the students are engaged and excited about what we are growing. Many of them try new vegetables and start gardens at home because of it.”

The Charlotte Schools Food Service does purchase the produce from the agriscience department at a discounted rate primarily because of the volume and because no packaging or transportation is required. The income from the sale of the school grown produce goes back into the program to continue these efforts and at times is a profit to some of the students working in the greenhouse. The salad greens and tomatoes have been the most popular item to grow and the two crops that students have had the most success in growing.

Thompson explained that, “one of the biggest challenges the agriscience department faces is having a consistent quantity and quality. Students are learning while doing, and they make mistakes, so sometimes those mistakes can affect production.”

He goes on to share his recommendation for other school programs interested in working on a farm-to-school initiative, “Get to know your food service director and see if they have a need. Start growing and get the kinks worked out. We have made a lot of mistakes and have learned from them. It's nice to get that out of the way before you have to fill an order on a regular basis. If your program can fill a need, you have a lot better chance of establishing a farm-to-school relationship. Our school director is very receptive which makes the process much easier. It's a win-win.”

Thompson is also a member of the Eaton Good Food Council (EGFC) that is co-led by Michigan State University Extension staff. His school, along with two other Eaton County schools and EGFC members at Olivet High School and Eaton Rapids High School, are actively engaging students in growing, harvesting and selling to their respective school food service programs. These efforts all aim to increase student learning about all facets of food production and the food system, along with providing healthy, nutrient-dense food to the student body.

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